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Prologis chief energy and sustainability officer Susan Uthayakumar, photographed at her home in Toronto, says organizations need to think about how they can support women in sustainability.Lucy Lu/The Globe and Mail

When it comes to the harmful effects of climate change, women and girls have the most to lose.

At the COP26 climate summit last fall, COP26 president Alok Sharma took to the stage on “Gender Day” – November 9 – noting that gender and climate are profoundly intertwined and “women and girls are disproportionately impacted by climate change.” Research by the United Nations has found that 80 per cent of those displaced by climate-related disasters and changes around the world are women and girls.

While the UN also concluded in a report last fall that men are overrepresented in the “international climate decision-making process,” prominent women such as climate activist Greta Thunberg and UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed have been instrumental in keeping climate change in the public consciousness.

Having women in leadership may even contribute to a boost in a company’s sustainability efforts. A February 2021 article in the Journal of Corporate Finance citing multiple studies found that women directors are more likely to advocate for the use of renewable energy and “the interaction of gender diversity and renewable energy increases firm value.”

Is the (greener) future female? Here are three remarkable women leading the charge toward a more sustainable future in Canada and around the world.

Helping organizations advance their sustainability goals

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to leave things in better shape than I found [them],” Susan Uthayakumar says. “Whether it’s a house, an organization or the planet, I really want a sustainable future for the people that come after us.”

Ms. Uthayakumar is chief energy and sustainability officer at Prologis, a global leader in logistics real estate headquartered in San Francisco that owns or invests in properties totalling 92 million square metres in 19 countries. Having just taken on the role in January, Ms. Uthayakumar says her goal is to create an operating environment within the company that enables their customers to advance their sustainability goals.

“I’ll be leading this effort by scaling our energy solutions business and looking for opportunities to advance renewable energy across our global portfolio,” says Ms. Uthayakumar. “For example, Prologis is a leader in deploying rooftop solar installations, and I’ll work closely with our SolarSmart team to help more customers reap the financial and operational benefits of clean energy.”

Born in Sri Lanka, Ms. Uthayakumar moved to Canada with her family as a child. After completing undergraduate and master’s degrees in finance at the University of Waterloo, she worked at companies such as Deloitte, McCain Foods and Schneider Electric. As president of Schneider Electric’s Sustainability Business Division, she was a key player in transforming the company from a product manufacturer into a specialist in energy management and efficient technologies.

She says that respect for a healthy profit and loss statement combined with a strong sense of purpose have set her on the path to success.

Ms. Uthayakumar recognizes there is a lack of female leadership in the sustainability field and says that organizations need to “really think” about how they can support women if change is going to happen.

“What is the flexibility you may have to give? How do you manage the different life stages women go through?” she says. “More companies are starting to think about it purposefully, but you still see disparity at the leadership level.”

Empowering the underserved to grow food and grow profit

Cheyenne Sundance, farm director at Sundance Harvest in Toronto, started her urban farm because she “couldn’t find one Black-owned farm.”ROYA DEL SOL

At 24 years old, Cheyenne Sundance has just started her career in sustainability, pursuing an entrepreneurial path that allows her to be her own boss.

Ms. Sundance opened her for-profit farming operation, Sundance Harvest, in 2019. To date, she rents two greenhouses on 1.5 acres of land in Toronto’s Downsview area, where she grows organic produce for seasonal boxes which are delivered directly to consumers.

“I never saw a representation of myself in this career, except through migrant labour, exploitation or non-profits who get funding,” she says. “And I saw a [vision for] a sustainable, for-profit farm.”

As a young, Black woman – without the intergenerational wealth that many Canadian farmers benefit from – Ms. Sundance is overcoming barriers in her mission to grow crops responsibly and without pesticides. “That’s really why I started. I couldn’t find one Black-owned farm,” she says.

Ms. Sundance is starting The National Farmer’s Association’s first BIPOC caucus and works with young people who feel left out of the industry through her program Growing in the Margins. Offered in the spring and summer, the program assists youth who identify as low-income, BIPOC, LGBTQ2S or a person with a disability, with Ms. Sundance sharing her business and agricultural skills to jump-start their growing operations.

It’s all part of her mission to empower the racialized and underserved in the farming industry.

“It’s [about] the vibrations of your fingers working in the soil, and then macro changes with people around you seeing what you’re doing and feeling represented,” she says.

Research at the cutting edge of natural and social sciences

McGill University professor Elena Bennett works with communities to examine the connections between land use, biodiversity and ecosystems.Tom DiSandolo

Dr. Elena Bennett, professor and research chair in sustainability science at McGill University, is passionate about people and the planet.

“We used to talk a lot about nature thriving despite people, and then people thriving despite nature with Western expansion,” she says. “Later, it was, ‘How we can we set aside enough nature despite what people are doing?’ Now, we are looking at how people and nature interact and can thrive together.”

As a researcher, Dr. Bennett partners with communities and provides ecosystem services. She examines the connections between land use, biodiversity and ecosystems and informs decision-making to positively impact human well-being and the economy.

For example, she’s investigating the impact of people and landscapes coming together in the Montérégie, a suburbanizing agricultural region outside of Montreal that’s attracting city dwellers seeking greener pastures.

“I’m working at the cutting edge of natural and social sciences coming together,” Dr. Bennett says.

She notes that funding was previously hard to come by because her work wasn’t focused on one discipline or the other. That’s changing though, she says.

“In the last five years or so, there’s a been a real sense that we need to be [working] in this interdisciplinary way,” Dr. Bennett says. That can mean working directly with community decision-makers while engaging academic science and Indigenous knowledge.

Dr. Bennett was awarded an E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada in 2017. For her, it’s a win that marks a sign of the times.

“This is [traditionally] an award for top people in [one] discipline,” Dr. Bennett says. “I look every year at the winners, and there are more people who I would say are in environmental and interdisciplinary spaces. That’s really exciting.”

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